Subchapter M update

The level of understanding of Subchapter M runs the gamut from nonexistent to expertise. Some in the towing industry have been involved with the process for the past eight years, helping to steer the direction of the final rule to establish safety regulations governing the inspection, standards, and safety management systems of towing vessels.

Some in the towing industry still have never heard of a TSMS (Towing Safety Management System) or think Subchapter M is a pipe dream, which will never come to fruition. So here’s a basic recap for those who may have been too busy to pay attention.

Subchapter M is a subchapter of 46 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), which outlines the regulations pertaining to a new class of inspected vessel: towing vessels. The subchapter was created as a result of a change in the law, which added towing vessels to the list of “inspected” vessels. The subchapter has been drafted and was published as a proposed rule a few years ago. The Coast Guard collected comments from industry, from those who were paying attention and had the time and ability to study the subchapter and provide constructive feedback to the government. The Coast Guard is now in the process of sorting through the comments, which it may already have completed. It has to go through a few more bureaucratic hurdles in the government before it is published as a “final rule.” There is a great deal of speculation regarding when, or if ever, it will be published, and if it will be final or put back out for further comments. Only a few insiders know the truth about the status, the rest of us when pressed, can only provide an educated guess. But rest assured it is coming, because the law requires it.

By the way, that sticker on your towboat does not mean that the Coast Guard has already inspected your vessels. Inspected vessels are issued a Certificate of Inspection (COI). The sticker means your vessel has been “examined” and found compliant with the existing regulations pertaining to towing vessels, which has nothing to do with Subchapter M.

Subchapter M is unique in that it provides an option to adopt a Towing Vessel Safety Management System (TSMS) and to use third party surveyors and auditors to determine compliance on behalf of the Coast Guard. It is important to remember that this is only an option and that company’s may opt, regardless of whether they use a safety management system or not, to choose the traditional Coast Guard inspection process for their compliance.

Whenever a new regulation is published, we at Maritime Compliance International study it and develop a compliance management system. The Subchapter M compliance management system that we have recently completed provides a good visual of the subchapter. Often complex applicabilities of different sections provide the most confusion for industry and inspectors alike. The applicability tool we have developed identified 17 different applicabilities, which must be determined for each vessel. Additionally, we have determined that the subchapter lends itself to three checklists, nine records, 13 management forms and five additional management forms for those that choose the TSMS-third party option… 

Be not afraid. It is manageable. Stay tuned…


About the author

Kevin Gilheany

Kevin Gilheany is a marine consultant and owner of Maritime Compliance International in New Orleans. He works with companies to help increase profitability through improved compliance and management systems. Gilheany is a retired U.S. Coast Guard marine inspector, certified marine surveyor and auditor, and crew endurance management expert. He has also provided contract training to the U.S. Coast Guard, was an adjunct instructor of maritime security at Tulane University’s Homeland Security Studies Program, and has contributed to marine industry publications. He can be reached at or

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